One of the hallmarks of Jewish life is charitable giving. The Torah emphasizes this mitzva numerous times. It is one of the identifying features of Jews, according to the Talmud.
In our time, charitable giving has become more organized, especially in the Diaspora. Most donors never face the indigent person that their money is meant to help. Thus to a great extent it has become impersonal, unemotional and eventually tiring and boring.
It may very well be that in our modern society organizational giving is the most efficient and practical way to go. But its facelessness and blandness deprives both the giver and the recipient of the connection to each other that was part of the Torah's intent in commanding us to participate constantly in charitable giving.
In my synagogue there are "collectors" who appear daily at the prayer services to collect charity. Some of these people are clearly collecting money for themselves and their families. Others may be collecting for charity funds that they maintain and distribute to the needy. Usually the amount given to these people is a small coin - a half shekel or a shekel. But the personal interaction between the giver and the taker makes for a meaningful experience, at least to me.
Giving a greater amount to an institution, no matter how worthy and no matter how large the check, remains essentially an impersonal experience. One has accomplished a great mitzva through this donation, but its impersonal nature often leaves the giver with a feeling of incompleteness.
Having been a fund-raiser all of my professional life - this is always part of the duties of a communal rabbi - I long ago learned that people really give money to other people. Mailings, drives, phone calls (usually annoying ones at odd times of the day) and other usual methods all have a place in our current world of fund-raising and charitable giving, but they are never as successful or meaningful as personal visits and contacts.
The Talmud records for us that Rabbi Akiva was "the hand of the poor." He stretched his hand forward to receive funds to distribute to the poor. People gave to Rabbi Akiva, to his hand, knowing that he represented the poor but also knowing that they had the privilege to give to a great person.
The most successful fund-raisers I have known are people who really and truly care about the donor and his or her welfare as much as they do about the cause or recipient that will eventually benefit from the donation. It is the personal relationship that seals the deal, because people give to people. I knew a great man who for decades was the executive vice president and leading fund-raiser for one of the great institutions of Torah learning in the United States. He later moved to Israel and became a fund-raiser for an educational institution. When he made his annual fund-raising trip to the United States, he visited all of his old clients. Everyone gave him their usual donation to his new cause, not because they were particularly enamored of this institution but rather because they were giving him their donation. He was their friend and therefore their giving was motivated by that personal relationship between them.
From Jonathan Rosenblum's article about who in the Jewish world gives to whom and how often and how much, it is apparent that the more impersonal the relationship between the donor and the representatives of the cause, the less is the likelihood of a donation. Basically we live in a world that is becoming more and more impersonal in many ways. The Internet and e-mail have become the favored method of communication between people. There is nothing more impersonal than this. And the more impersonal communication is the less likely charitable giving will increase relative to the improving economy and standards of living.
Charitable giving has to be made a value in our society. Education and home practices can advance it. So can personal connections and empathy among all of the classes in our society. For we are taught that "charity can save one from death" - both the giver and the taker.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com)